Barcelona i Catalunya: the real thing

The scholar of world politics and openDemocracy columnist Fred Halliday lived and worked in - and fell in love with - Barcelona. In a warm essay written five months before he died on 26 April 2010, Fred celebrates the home of his last years.

Fred Halliday
9 June 2010

A short while ago, I was invited by the veteran presenter and journalist, Josep Cuní to appear in a debate on Catalonia's TV3. The topic, occasioned by controversy about hostile coverage in the British journal the Economist, was the international image of the country; and in particular what Catalonia, and the Catalan government, could do to improve this situation. By dint of my having lived and worked much of the past five years in Barcelona, and of intending to continue to do so - and also because, while speaking Spanish, I can understand discussion in Catalan - I was invited to take part.

A lively, perhaps somewhat fauviste, discussion soon followed: Pilar Rahola, dressed in a suit with large tiger-skin lapels, and someone with whom I came immediately to feel a certain affinity, was in characteristic form, denouncing Catalan politicians for wasting money on “embassies” in foreign cities, while other, wiser representatives of Catalan culture, business and journalism, offered their thoughts. With much of what they said I was in agreement; above all the insistence of one participant, a philologist, that “Refusal to learn the language of another people is an insult to them”.

Catalonia’s heart

My own contribution to the debate involved three main points. First, that while in the Catalan debate words and tempers can become heated, Catalans should not overreact to the Economist article, parts of which were inaccurate but other parts (in English terms) “fair comment”. In general, I suggested, it is a mistake for peoples, however strong their national pride, to become too agitated by chance observations made about them. Instead, I suggested, they should take note of the remark by Mahatma Gandhi: “No one ever insulted me without first receiving my permission”.

My second observation, and one that causes me as much embarrassment and irritation as it does to any Catalan, is that part of the responsibility for ignorance about Catalonia, and susceptibility to myths about the country, is the fault not of the Catalans but of foreigners: both those who do visit and write about the country, and those who don’t. Indeed, it is striking how in the past two centuries so few foreign writers or travellers, other than Latin Americans, ever came here, in comparison to France, Italy or Greece (or even, further afield, Egypt, Persia, India and China). 

Nor is it easy to see Barcelona through the lens of modern history: no guidebook on sale on the Ramblas will tell the visitor (or, for that matter, a local young person) where to find the monument erected (after the post-1975 transition)  to the International Brigades. And when at last you do locate it, somewhat lost in the middle of a motorway in the northern hills (outside the Tunel de la Rovira, Rambla del Carmel), there is nothing on the sculpture to tell you what it commemorates - but only a quote, eloquent but unsourced, from La Pasionaria.

Third, I suggested that one thing which could help to promote knowledge of Catalonia abroad would be a different literary and cultural image. Of Barcelona, two such images are readily available. The first is a composite of the foreign tourist, student and temporary visitor; of the Olympics and of Woody Allen; of a city of beaches, music, wonderful food, spectacular architecture, of clubs and botellón - for sure one of the most interesting and stimulating (in my view the most) cities in the world, unique in the combination of culture, sea, sun, beauty and sheer urban exuberance.

The second image is that of the capital city of Catalonia, a product of the enormous political, economic and cultural changes of the past century or more, international in aspiration and in its receipt of tourists, but remarkably inward looking. Barcelona is proud of its achievements, but at times rather too closed to the outside world, and strangely negligent of those who visit and come to live in it. It is a city of bright colours but surprisingly introverted social and professional circles. The issue here is not that of the Catalan language - I enjoy the fact that I get up every morning and know I will have to work that day in three languages - but of a remarkably closed society, curiously deficient in the courtesies, inquisitiveness and practices of hospitality, individual and institutional, which are found in most other states and cultures around the world.

Hence my suggestion on TV3: celebration of the new Barcelona of immigrants, technical change, cultural pluralism; in effect, and in the best sense of the word, “postmodern” (and thus necessarily “post-nationalist”). For this, Barcelona awaits its writer, a John Dos Passos, a James Joyce, a Salman Rushdie, a Walter Benjamin, a Herodotus, someone who can capture the many faces and sounds of this city in a kaleidoscopic portrait, at once true to its status as the capital of Catalonia and as one of the great world cities of the 21st century.

Barcelona’s message

This is the Barcelona, above all, that I have come to know and to love in the past four years and more: the all-day and light-night vitality of my local café, Tris i Tras, in Plaça Molina; the chilled-out ambience of the xiringuito, El Bierzo, in the middle of the Nova Icaria beach; the Chilean waiter in Sant Gervasi who teaches me leftwing slogans in Mapuche justifying mass land-seizures; the Moroccan family I met on the beach at Barceloneta, who speak only Berber and Catalan; two Argentinean friends, expansive in their hospitality, who host me and my friends in their superchic cocktail-bar Mama-Shake, in Plaça Sant Cugat, one minute from the Santa Caterina market; my Australian co-author, long resident in Papua New Guinea, now a leading translator of Catalan literature, ensconced in her book-lined 18th-century flat in the Born, with the volumes of Joan Corominas as backdrop; my Icelandic designer friend, a formidable imbiber in her own right, who brings 40% proof liquor from her country; the Dominican hairdressers whose salon in Hospitalet is, on weekend afternoons, a social centre for the whole Latin American community, the sound of laughing women, merengue and bachata ringing forth; the Filipino waiter who, on advising me about the best meat dishes in his country, after indicating which can be taken with chicken, pork or beef, then whispers that, of course, the best is dog; my Catalan language teacher, a Palestinian from Los Angeles, whom I meet once a week for coffee and an exchange of linguistic and intercultural anecdotes; not least, my ever vivacious Cuban friend, who on her wedding-day declared to the guests that she was casada pero no capada (married but not neutered), addressing me as profesor gordo (fat professor). And many more.

Above all else, and to me the most universal, eternal and, in these precipitate 24/7 times most pertinent saying, is that philosophy of every Barcelona taxi-driver: O se vive para trabajar, o se trabaja para vivir (You either live to work, or work to live). This, more than any cascades of cava, baubles of Gaudi, or the forty-three varieties of pa amb tomàquet, is the message which Barcelona offers to the world. And, for which, many thanks. 

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